The scandalous truth about asylum-seekers and terrorists

You are more likely to be the victim of the man who has lived up the road for 30 years than the asylum-seeker in the B&B
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The Independent Online

In my nephew's primary school, the children of asylum-seekers are accused of being "beggars", "stinking thieves", and worse. Children who hang out with asylum-seekers are dubbed "asylum creepers" and shunned. In the next few days, I suspect, the word "terrorist" will be added to the pantheon of insults and the excuses for beating the crap out of these already-traumatised kids. So, as the myths seep yet further into the already warped British attitude towards asylum-seekers, let us begin with a fact: 492,640 asylum-seekers have arrived in Britain in the past 10 years, and three – three – have turned out to be involved in terrorist activities.

In my nephew's primary school, the children of asylum-seekers are accused of being "beggars", "stinking thieves", and worse. Children who hang out with asylum-seekers are dubbed "asylum creepers" and shunned. In the next few days, I suspect, the word "terrorist" will be added to the pantheon of insults and the excuses for beating the crap out of these already-traumatised kids. So, as the myths seep yet further into the already warped British attitude towards asylum-seekers, let us begin with a fact: 492,640 asylum-seekers have arrived in Britain in the past 10 years, and three – three – have turned out to be involved in terrorist activities.

This is frightening, but we would do well to remember that far, far more terrorists have blasted forth from the ranks of British people who were born here: the Soho nail-bomber David Copeland, the Animal Liberation Front, who have attacked research scientists with baseball bats and issued death threats, Combat 18, the Angry Brigade, the sectarian bigots from both sides of the Northern Ireland conflict... the list goes on. If you are going to be blown up on the streets of London or Manchester, you are much more likely to be the victim of the man who was has lived up the road for 30 years than of the asylum-seeker shoved into your local B&B last week.

So terrorism and asylum-seeking are not linked by a steel cable of common interest, in the way that our right-wing press stated yesterday; they are different issues which have overlapped once, briefly, and horribly. Of course, it is troubling that many people are entering Britain and then disappearing from the state's view – partly because of the tiny (but none the less chilling) risk that they will become involved with terrorism, but mostly because of the near-certainty that these lost people end up working in the black economy. There, they are paid a fraction of the minimum wage, subjected to inhuman work conditions, and often fall into prostitution in order to stay alive.

One prostitute, a "vanished" illegal immigrant whom I recently met through an asylum charity, explained: "Every morning I wake up terrified. If I get ill, I cannot go to the hospital." [Because she has no documentation that would entitle her to NHS treatment.] "I must go to a friendly man who is not properly trained, has very little equipment and who makes me pay a fortune. If one of my clients attacks me" [this had happened three times, and on the latest occasion she narrowly escaped being strangled] "I cannot go to the police, because they will deport me. I can never have babies, because where would they be born? How could they go to school?"

The bureaucratic failure of our asylum system needs to be rectified because the greatest victims of its failure are illegal immigrants themselves. Neither of our main political parties has a right to act indignant over this: it was the Tories in 1996 who commissioned the disastrous computer system that was meant to track asylum claims but in fact melted down, and it is Jack Straw who had four years to deal with this and failed comprehensively. The current system is plainly not working – but the idea, propounded by Ann Widdecombe, that the only alternative to it is to ditch the Geneva Convention and chuck all asylum-seekers into prison camps indefinitely is ludicrous.

Widdecombe herself, when she was shadow Home Secretary during the Hague madness, had to water down precisely these plans when it was figured out that they would cost a whopping £2bn to set up and £1bn a year to run. This is money that would be far better spent, if terrorism rather than populism is the priority, on the intelligence services. The costs would almost certainly escalate even further from these already high figures, because Widdecombe's claim that many applications could be processed in a week – when we are dealing with applicants fleeing chaotic or hostile countries – are at best naive.

But let's set these practical concerns aside – grave though they are – and simply look at the morality (a word Widdecombe is fond of using over abortion) of these proposals. The Tory ranters and Sun columnists have a clear model: the Australian Asylum Experience. The Aussie Prime Minister, John Howard, has sent out gunboats to turn away asylum-seekers; when their children drowned, he accused the asylum-seekers of throwing their children overboard in order to get sympathy. Thirty-three Afghan refugees who were fleeing the Taliban were so distraught at being housed indefinitely in barbed-wire camps in the middle of the desert that, in despair, they sewed their lips together. Over 200 went on hunger strike because they could not believe that the free world had turned out to be so chimerical; most of the teenagers and children were, researchers found, suicidal.

This would be the reality of life in the detention centres that much of our press called for yesterday. Widdecombe's assertion that most of the asylum claims could be processed in a fortnight is either hopelessly naive or a lie. We are talking about people coming from countries that are often in chaos and where records are near-impossible to track.

How the hell did we defenders of asylum-seekers get forced into this defensive position anyway? The pressure on our politicians over the asylum system from all decent people should not be to crack down yet further on an already reeling asylum population. We, quite rightly, did not crack down on young working-class white men after David Copeland was caught; we do not crack down on middle-class lefties when ALF activists are intercepted.

The pressure should instead be for an end to the shameful mistreatment of asylum-seekers that is taking place every day. The pernicious system of vouchers has at last been phased out, but a man or woman fleeing persecution to our islands is still given the pitiful sum of £37.77 per week – Richard Littlejohn and all the other anti-asylum-seeker journalists should try living on that – and some aren't even given that much.

For example, the invaluable Refugee Council recently revealed the case of a 28-year-old Cameroonian who has been sleeping on the streets since waiting for the Government to decide whether he is entitled to food and shelter. This is because a new rule, which came into force on 8 January, has removed the right to support for destitute asylum-seekers who do not claim asylum at port. This is forcing victims of torture and their children to sleep rough while they wait for government bureaucracy to lumber into action. This is the "excessively generous" asylum system which The Sun and the Daily Mail rant constantly against.

Of course we should be horrified by the handful of terrorists who snake through the asylum system; but the main focus of our anger should not be this defect affecting a handful of people, but the wider asylum scandal that is affecting tens of thousands of people every day.

johann@johannhari.com

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